Interview: David Lowe, Winemaker, Lowe Family Wine Co., Mudgee
Meet the man and the legend, David Lowe. I had the great pleasure of chatting to David at the Lowe Family Wine Co. cellar door when I was in Mudgee recently.
David is a highly regarded figure in the Aussie wine industry, and a real character. I had a wonderful time getting to know a bit about how he got into wine, what makes him tick and how he and his staff have had to pivot to make the most of a challenging year.
Was there a particular moment that made you fall in love with wine?
I was 15, and I was advised at high school (I went to an agriculture school). We needed to choose our subjects when we were 16 that would be the career for the rest of our lives – and we took that literally. I’d worked at the winery at Craigmoor next door, and I was in the laboratory, and I loved it. We did wine tastings every Wednesday afternoon. So I announced to my parents I was gonna become a winemaker – they were horrified! They went to church on Sunday and prayed for my soul. Their view of wine drinkers then was in a brown bag under a bridge. Everything I did after that then was focussed on wine, from age 15 on. Planted a vineyard with my dad, went to university at 18, got my first job at 21, worked 25 years in the wine business, went overseas to work and came back, worked in other areas [in Australia] then eventually I came back here, took over the family farm, built the winery and that’s all I’ve done. I have no other skills! Zero.
What keeps you passionate about working in the industry?
Innovation. I love doing new things. Wine is… it’s easy to make wine. If it’s really good material, it’s hard to stuff up. They’re incredibly forgiving, good wines and good vineyards. So we always just try to push the boundaries of innovation – grape growing, winemaking. Nothing’s too hard! We tackle things that we have an idea about, and I love that we move really quickly. Quite different from the industrial wine companies. If we have an idea, we’ll start it tomorrow. Anything we dream up we can do on the farm. It’s a large farm, about 400 hectares, it’s all certified organic. We have vast vegetable plantings, and we’ve got all sorts of plans for greenhouses and hothouses, and I just bought 400 mature olive trees that I want to plant in a grove. There’s nothing stopping us! We’ve got this amazing natural advantage that I inherited, and every year I get more and more staggered by what we can do. There’s actually no boundaries or barriers to us anymore, so that’s what I love about the industry. Sometimes I come in here and I go, “I don’t like the way the cellar door’s set out.” So we just move it. We’ve moved this three times in the last year. Absolute flexibility, and only small companies can do that. I love that side of what I do. In agriculture, you grow and you make. For me, there’s nothing that makes me prouder than seeing someone enjoying a bottle of my wine at a restaurant. I can trace that wine all the way back to when we grew it and made it. That’s a really powerful feeling for me. It’s not selfish or egotistical or arrogant – it’s just a lovely feeling. That’s important, emotionally, to me, to see a wine go all the way through its journey.
What’s the most recent wine to surprise or excite you?
Preservative free. That’s what I’ve been making for a long time, but I always get astounded by how well it works, how long it lasts, how much interest there is in it. We started 10 years ago on it, but we refine it all the time. What we do here isn’t popular, and a long time ago I thought “Why aren’t we more successful?” But success is judged differently by different people. I thought we’d be more popular with these sort of wine styles, but then it’s got a real following here, in Mudgee. And in the end, we’re doing really well because people come here to us. We don’t have to go out or do extensive advertising. We don’t have to do a lot of promotional stuff, people just come here because they like our authenticity. Success for us is that we sell our wine out of the cellar door easily, the staff love it, and we’re able to do other things on the back of it. I’m really strong on the preservative free point of view. I’m actually asthmatic, and I have an allergy to preservatives. I’m not acute, I’m sensitive. I think we’ve got to be better at catering for more and more sensitivities, and that’s part of the innovation. How do we get away from interfering in wine? How do we do it more naturally? I understand the industrial need to manufacture wine and to make it consistent, but we’ve proven you don’t need to do that. We’ve proven that every year is different in the winery, every batch is different, and people trust us, because we wouldn’t bother releasing it if it wasn’t good. And it can be good at $18 or $150. We’re open and honest about that.
What bottle is open in your kitchen right now?
We have a Pinot Noir from last night that I took home and didn’t finish. (Me: One of your Pinots?) Yeah, my wife likes it chilled so we just throw it in the fridge. But I do drink a lot of other people’s wine. I do a wine swap with a lot of people who are my old friends from when we were young winemakers together. Not just from Mudgee but all over. Huon Hooke did a wine dinner in The Rocks recently called Wine & Food Matching. I wanted to go and see how he handles wine & food matching, because people ask me all the time! And I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still don’t know the answers. I find it really difficult to say “This wine goes with this food.” I’ve got a team of chefs for that! So I went to that dinner, and Huon Hooke didn’t know I was there. “What are you doing here?” he asked me, so then he got all self-conscious! I bought a couple of cases of wine that he recommended – a selection of 9 wines from around the world to go with the food they were matching with them. There was a nice sangiovese out of Heathcote, which was nice. But interestingly it tasted better at the dinner with Huon Hooke than it did when I had it at home. I was talking it up to my wife, and then she goes “I don’t like that very much” and I agreed with her. That shows the difference, the balance between having a wine at a function where you’re upbeat and one at home where you just want a glass. (Me: It’s interesting, that question of how the atmosphere and the event and the ambience adds to the flavour and changes the flavour of a wine. It’s really interesting.) That’s the principle reason why we modified the cellar door. So when people come in they see it’s a working winery. We grow grapes down here, we make wine here and we sell wine here. We educate. One of the most important lessons I learned is that it’s all about what you do with wine. It’s not the taste of the wine – that’s for you to make up your own mind about. We’ll say “This is what this wine stands for, this is what’s in it, this is the temperature we recommend you serve it at, this is what the label means, and this is what you might wanna do if you’re having it with food.” But we never tell anyone what it tastes like. People have very different tastes. We just try to demystify the winemaking process.
What’s your go-to party tipple?
Champagne. It’s just got such a positive vibe, and everybody loves it. All the work’s been done for the last 300 years! It’s fantastic when you get a bottle of fizz. A good bottle of fizz. Everybody’s happy when you open a bottle of fizz. It’s safety; from your bank manager to an old girlfriend, you can’t go wrong. We make a bit, but it’s not my greatest wine. My wife made a rule when we got married – always have a cold bottle of champagne in the fridge. Always. My old boss used to say that you can always tell a person of great style if, when they mow the lawn, you can hear the ‘chink chink’ of champagne corks!
Which wine destination is on the top of your bucket list?
Priorat in Spain. I wanna go there. It’s the closest region I think Mudgee is to anywhere in the world. I know a lot about Europe, and once I went to Spain, but I wasn’t there for long. I want to go Turkey too. I’ve got a couple of Turkish friends who are amateur winemakers there, and I had everything lined up to go… and then covid hit. There’s a strong wine culture in Turkey that you never hear about. I’ve got an old friend who’s a really serious wine man who used to go over there every year to consult, and he used to tell me that some of the most exciting wines in the world are coming out of Turkey. And South Africa’s on the list too. There’s a really interesting place that we’re jealous of called Babylonstoren. Amazing place! I wanna go there. And in fact, people have said that my place here reminds them of Babylonstoren. So that’s a win! So… you only asked for one, and I’ve given you three.
Desert island wine – what bottle would you want to have with you?
So the logical answer would be something that would be easily stored, that wouldn’t have to be delicately stored… it would have to be refreshing, it would have to be savoury, it would have to be easy to manage… I’m thinking a really out there thing. I’ve never thought this before. An Amontillado Sherry!
How do you think the challenges of 2020 (bushfires, the pandemic) have affected the future of the Aussie wine industry?
I’m either blessed or I’m diseased with this problem about where there’s crisis, there’s opportunity. It’ll make or be the end of me, I don’t know. We made an early call to not make wine because of smoke taint. I had difficulty with that decision, but my staff we powerful enough to convince me that it was a stupid idea. I have a great friend who’s a winemaker in Sonoma in California, he was my mentor. And I rang him about it, and he told me “Don’t do it. Whatever you do, don’t make any wine.” He had a similar issue 3 years ago, and that was confirmation for me. So we did a lot of really interesting things as a result of it. We did a lot of changes to here, and I started thinking about how we change our structure. We took the business out of being 80% reliant on wine sales to about 50%. We expanded the restaurant, we’ve got an antique shop in Mudgee, we’re opening a hole in the wall pasta bar in town in a month’s time. We’ve got 7 businesses we’ve now started as a result. We’re utilising our staff across all the different areas. I’m going ahead with this amazing crystal palace glass house, I want to plant the olive trees I mentioned before… I’m dangerous! We’ve really been transformed psychologically. By not making any wine, by drawing a line through that, it gave me time to take a breath. I didn’t think the grapes were good anyway because of the extreme drought. And I think extreme droughts create our worst wines. I’m the odd one out in that – most people think drought makes better wine. But not in Australia. In Europe it does, because it’s always so wet anyway, so drought actually brings it back to our normal climate. I think our droughts are twice as bad, and I’ve never been a fan of drought wine. I think the grapes go too far. There’s no brightness or freshness or juiciness. They’re just heavy and dry and extractive. So like I said, I drew a line through winemaking and we got our shit together. We built the chapel and the barn, we did a lot of staff education, and that was their wish. Full pay, no one lost any money. And they all wanted to help and stay onboard. Weeding, digging, building. A great little community of people. I think where there’s crisis there’s opportunity. We haven’t had any wine, and we’re running out. But you hear that everywhere. We’ve got a lot of red wine stored, but it’s not ready. So Business Dave is impatient to get that out and release it and get some cash flow, but Smart Old-fashioned David knows it’s not ready yet. So I have this internal battle!
What would you like people to know about visiting Mudgee and your winery?
There’s an old line that’s used a lot by Europe, not so much here… that there’s no other agricultural product that displays its region like wine does. There’s a common thread in Mudgee that I see as being colour, concentration and middle-palate acidity. There’s an acidity to Mudgee wines that make them ideal with food. So you can have a Mudgee wine anywhere in the world, and it will transport you straight back here. I think there’s a strong collaborative streak with all the winemakers in Mudgee. We’ve had a lot of adversity, we’ve had the major wine companies who came in on a white horse saying, “We’re gonna take you to the land of milk and honey, we’re the big four wine companies and we’re gonna make lots of money and we’re gonna employ you and make you a wonderful town because we’re cleverer than you!” And I’ve watched them over the years all retreat – they’re gone. And I think we’re better off for it. (Me: I agree.) I’ve said it publicly, and I’ll say it to anyone. They’ve gone, and what’s left is now a strong collaboration where people are happy to share ideas. We don’t talk about sales and marketing. We talk about growing and production. And a mature industry does that.
And, finally, what would people be surprised to know about you?
That I’ve got a lot of things in my mind that I wanna do. I’ve got this whole background gnawing away in my head of things I need to do! And I don’t know whether it’s related to the fact that I’m a slow starter, or that I’m getting old. I can’t figure that one out. People are astonished, they think I’m at retirement age. The hell I am! I’m just getting started. And I’m not saying I’m gonna be successful, but I just wanna do it. I get bored really easily, and I just wanna go do something. That’s why I keep changing the cellar door! I’m a fart in a bottle.
Learn more about David, his team & Lowe Family Wine Co. here, and keep an eye on the blog for my full write-up on Mudgee soon!
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